Principal, January/February 2013
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Teacher Wellness: A Conversation with Adam Sáenz

Teacher wellness is a crucial—but often overlooked—aspect of staff development. Discover psychologist and author Adam Sáenz's strategies for tackling several common wellness quandaries, including how to engage discouraged new teachers' well-being even on a crunched schedule.


Several young first-, second-, and third-year teachers work at Principal A’s school, and he’s noticed that they often get frustrated with the hardships of teaching. What might Principal A do to help motivate and engage these new educators—before they, potentially, leave the profession?

What I recommend to principals is to establish a team of two to four veteran teachers. When I say “veterans,” those aren’t necessarily the teachers who have been teaching for 30 years. It may be that teachers that have passed the five-year mark are the veteran teachers on a campus. Whoever those folks are, create a mentoring team with them, and have them sit down with the teachers who are at a fork in the road.

What I think is important is that any job can be a career, a vocation, or a calling. A calling really speaks to: this is why I’m on the planet, this is why I do what I do. Mentors can help these teachers cast a vision for their calling as an educator, and keep them mindful of those “calling moments” on the job. That can be the fuel to push new teachers through the slumps.

Also, you can help new teachers set boundaries. Remind them that even if they could work a 35 hour work day, there still wouldn’t be enough time to do everything they need to do.

Principal B has noticed that several of her teachers seem particularly apathetic and disengaged from the school community lately. What should her first steps be to remedy the situation?

Well, first, don’t ignore them. Schedule some time to sit down with each teacher to discuss the situation. The key is first to ask what you can do to support them. Ask, “What can I be doing to help? What kind of supports might you need?”

But, also, be directive. You can say something like, “You are entitled to your feelings about your work situation, but you are also responsible to express those feelings in a way that is healthy and respectful to your colleagues and the children in your class.  Apathy and disengagement are not healthy options.”

From there, you can provide resources that you think may be helpful. Make sure to check back in to hold your teacher accountable for improvements in their attitude, and hold yourself accountable for supporting them.  

Despite some positive changes and lots of hard work on the part of the staff, Principal’s C’s school received a failing grade last year. He knows turning a school around takes time—but how can he make sure his teachers don’t lose hope?

What I’d suggest in this situation is that you incorporate an outside narrative. Bring in someone who has walked this path before and experienced a victory. This could be a principal or teacher from a neighboring school or district. They can walk through the process, and give your staff members hope that success is tangible. In your discussions with this person and with your staff, keep your own school’s vision alive and clear.

In talks with staff members, you can validate teachers’ feelings by giving them permission to feel hopeless, and empower them by offering practical strategies to adaptively express that emotion. Suggest that they, one, engage by connecting with an encouraging colleagues;  two, disengage to reflect on what they might do differently tomorrow, next week, next month, next semester and next year; and three, disengage to reflect on their calling as an educator and re-affirm the “why” of the vocation.

Principal D has had to cut several support staff positions, and she finds herself swamped with administrative duties. She doesn’t feel like she has as much time as she’d like to devote to staff development. What are some ways to support teachers’ well-being even when schedules—and funding—are crunched?

Pooling district-level resources can be a viable option in this scenario.  I have worked with elementary principals who have pooled their budgets to share training expenses.  For example, one campus might host a professional development event and invite another campus to join.  That's a great way to share costs and build professional rapport and community.  

If there’s no money (even shared) to bring in a speaker for professional development, search for professionals within your district. It can be easy to take for granted the expertise right under our noses.  If I were a principal, I would ask myself, “Which professional in my district has been through what I'm going through? How can they coach me in leading my staff? Which district-level employee can I invite to my campus to share their expertise?” 

—As told to Meredith Barnett, Associate Editor


For more ideas from Sáenz, hear him speak at the 2013 NAESP National Conference in Baltimore.